Michael Brown: The case of Mr Robinson shows that the Commons cannot regulate itself

'The reality is rough justice based more on raw politics and the colour of the party in control of the Commons'
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The Independent Online

Geoffrey Robinson's suspension from the House of Commons raises once again the question of Parliament's ability to regulate itself. The present system has now been in place for five years, and the arbitrariness of the manner of its deliberations seems to be its principal characteristic – perhaps inevitably in any process that concludes with Members of Parliament judging each other.

The feeling among a growing number of MPs, particularly on the Tory side, is that justice and punishment are meted out, not according to the severity of the offence, but according to whether the miscreant is a member of the governing or opposition party.

That feeling is reinforced by Mr Robinson's suspension of just three weeks. In terms of the scale of the allegations – and the indulgence which he seems to have been allowed, bearing in mind the lack of disclosure to Elizabeth Filkin, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards – the punishment seems extraordinarily light.

I cannot help feeling that if the offence had been committed by a Tory MP, there would have been a harsher penalty. The fundamental flaw in the present arrangements comes down to the fact that the committee which adjudicates on the commissioner's reports has an inbuilt Labour majority. Sure, the present committee is chaired by a Tory – what a clever ruse by Labour – and it defends itself by usually arriving at its decisions without a vote, behind closed doors.

Of course, I have an axe to grind about the current system, since I myself, after my defeat in the 1997 general election, was subjected to a decision on a complaint made against me prior to the election. In 1986, before the current arrangements were in place, I had failed to declare a commission payment of £6,000 in the Register of Interests. I was wrong, confessed all during the backwash of the Hamilton/Fayed affair, and received a reprimand from the new, Labour-controlled committee after my defeat.

One of the principal criticisms was that I had not paid tax on the payment. Although I paid the tax the moment I was reported to the commissioner, I know that this aspect was one of the major reasons for my punishment which, had I been re-elected, would have involved a "substantial" period of suspension.

At no stage, however, did I have any complaints about the procedures, which appeared rigorous and harsh, but fair, and were clearly intended to send a message to MPs about how, in the squeaky-clean world of New Labour, standards in public life would be different. Imagine my delighted surprise, however, when, just a few weeks ago, the taxman not only returned my £1,500 payment but also kindly added an interest payment of £300 for tax unnecessarily paid. Apparently my "payment" was a gift not liable to tax after all.

That did not exonerate me from my failure to declare, but I feel an angry sense of unequal treatment when I see Mr Robinson suffer little more than a slap on the wrist. Since I have ended up in profit as a result of the complaint against me, however, I have no intention of asking the committee to reconsider its conclusions.

It all adds to a sense of rough-and-ready justice based more on raw party politics and the colour of the majority party in control of the committee. The impression is reinforced that Tory sleaze seems to be more harshly punished, while Labour sleaze gets away with it. Looking at the crimes committed by Mr Vaz and Mr Robinson, and their relatively light penalties, I cannot help feeling that had I been a Labour MP my punishment would also have been lighter.

If self-regulation is to work, surely it is the commissioner who makes an investigation, rather than MPs, who should be given the power to recommend the punishment. As things stand, the commissioner issues a report, usually making it clear whether there has been a breach of the rules. It is then a matter between the MPs on the committee and the member who has been complained against.

At this point, prevarication, which may have been a key feature in the dealings with the commissioner, can continue with the MPs on the committee who, usually in exasperation, seem to let the MP off much more lightly than he deserves.

I have watched, more with admiration than jealousy, the way in which Messrs Robinson, Mandelson and Vaz (all now ex-ministers) have made a monkey of Ms Filkin and fools of the Standards Committee. What leaves me most in awe is the general disdain they appear to have shown for the whole process. In Mr Robinson's case, a previous offence (this is now the fourth time he has been the subject of a complaint) elicited a perfunctory one-line apology at the dispatch box while he carried on as a government minister.

Now the knives seem to be out for Ms Filkin, as she faces the prospect of having to reapply for her job when her contract expires. The charge from her detractors is that she has been over-zealous in the conduct of her investigations. Certainly, she has had to pursue a number of "tit-for-tat" complaints. But that is the fault of the system itself, in that it requires her to take up complaints that may well be based on malevolence rather than wrongdoing.

Issues such as William Hague's use of Jeffrey Archer's gym are certainly not the business of the committee, but they have not come before it out of any desire by Ms Filkin to be trivial. By gumming up the works with this kind of nonsense and starving her of resources, some MPs have been able to obstruct her investigations and prevent her from pursuing genuine investigations to a firm conclusion.

Frankly, the case for abandoning self-regulation of MPs by MPs is now overwhelming. The feeling that the current arrangements are favourable to bias and favouritism may be perceived rather than actual, but it still leads to a sense of rough justice based on partisanship.

It must surely be possible to establish a quasi-judicial procedure, beyond MPs, and perhaps involving judges, to decide at first whether there is a case to answer. The judicial committee could root out party-political attempts to refer a complaint for purely malicious purposes. Then Miss Filkin could conduct her inquiries before referring the matter back to the judicial committee to determine the appropriate punishment.